Prioritize Joyful Teaching and Learning in Virginia Public Schools

Courtesy Success Academies

by James C. Sherlock

Sometimes things are so right in front of you that you look past them.

I have been studying public education in Virginia for more than 15 years.

The policy face of the teaching and learning is — there is no other word for it — depressing, at least to the degree that those policies as written can be decoded into English.

Especially when our schools’ processes are constantly re-engineered at the behest of the education establishment. Teachers and students struggle to adjust to policies that are said to “work” in small, targeted studies but prove after enormous effort and expense not to scale as predicted. Or they work in the best schools and not in the worst.

At the federal level, the VDOE level, the ed school level and the local school division level, policies are frenetically changed to clean up problems real or perceived.

Virtually no solution I have seen focuses on enhancing the joys of teaching and learning.

The best individual schools in Virginia can and many certainly do focus on joy. But that is not what they are told to do. And clearly many don’t do it.

It is no wonder SOL scores in many schools continue to be dismal, teachers and students quit and students are chronically absent in droves.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Why does joy matter? Success Academy (S/A) non-profit charter management organization this year will educate approximately 20,000 kids in New York City. The students are disproportionately minority (94%) and poor (80%). If it were its own school division, S/A would have been for years the top rated school division in the state based upon Regents Exams.

In April of 2015, when they educated 14,000, a random lottery was held for the 2,300 open seats in their schools. There were 22,000 applications.

For those of us who have wondered what the secret sauce of Success Academies is, it is “hidden” on the home page.

What sets us apart — Passion-driven learning.

Sparking each child’s enthusiasm for learning is at the core of everything we do. We are committed to fostering an exciting environment where kids can deepen their curiosity and grow into confident, self-directed adults.

Those are the only words on that page.

Passion-driven learning need not set them apart from Virginia public schools.

The education establishment. What it will take first and foremost is a shift of attitudes and goals of the Virginia public school education establishment. By reading their work, you could be forgiven for thinking they need to get a life.

They can usefully take up the mantra of joyful teaching and learning and direct their efforts to those ends.

The Board of Education’s Vision expressed in its 2018-23 Comprehensive Plan

The vision of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction, in cooperation with their partners, is to create an excellent statewide system of public education that derives strength from diversity and that ensures equity of opportunity for each student in a safe and healthy learning environment that prepares all students to be capable, responsible, and self-reliant citizens in the global society.

That’s it. Apparently no one needs to have fun.

Do what I just did. Go to the VDOE website and search the term “joy of learning.”    

Sorted by relevance by my search engine, the results begin with a 2002 memo from the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction on the subject of Disneys American Teacher Awards. 

The rest are equally insipid.

Go to Virginia Tiered Systems of Support. The same search for “joy of learning” will lead you to discover that:

Cal State Fullerton African American studies professor Mei-Ling Malone explains: “Black joy is an act of resistance. The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world.”

Certainly helpful.

I will largely spare you the results from the UVa and Virginia Tech ed school page searches.

A few events at UVa from that search are in the sorry-we-missed-them category, but I could not bring myself to include them in the text of this article.

Tech had one item that addressed the issue of joy of learning. An interview with a grad student. Take a look. She is heartening.

Bottom line. Joy — Success Academy’s “passion-driven learning” — should be established as a major goal of our public schools. No new bureaucracy or paperwork need be involved (thank God).

It starts with principals, teachers and parents asking teachers and students if they had fun today. Regardless of the answer, ask why. Share the answers with your school’s administration. They can set up pages restricted to employees and parents on their web sites to accept them. And learn from them.

If the learning climates of our schools can be made even a little more joyous each year, they will increasingly thrive.

  • Better student conduct will follow.
  • Joyful kids are not needlessly absent.
  • Joyful learners learn.
  • Joyful teachers seldom quit for reasons of stress. The entire profession will be more attractive.

Joy won’t solve all of the issues, but right now appears to be a path not taken in many schools and certainly in the education establishment.

Take it.